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January 2007

Sling your hook

A few weeks ago, I was browsing in a computer shop and was intrigued to see a Slingbox on sale.  As I understand it, the idea is that you hook it up to your TV antenna and cable box, and can then you can use a PC anywhere in the world (or your mobile phone) to watch TV - and it allows you to change the channel on your cable box. 

Then a couple of weeks ago I saw one in the window of a '3' mobile phone shop.  The logic is obvious enough - maybe this is the 'killer application' that was provides a compelling reason to have a 3G mobile phone.  Even better for the phone companies is that if they charge by the kilobyte you can run up a huge bill - and the Sunday Times recently found someone who owed £950 for just four days usage:

Michael Schaefer, 46, an IT specialist from Ealing, west London, was charged £950 in just four days by O2 after using his 3G (third generation) phone to view TV for just two hours.  3G phones offer high-speed access to the internet, allowing users to download TV, films and music to their phones while on the move. Firms have spent billions rolling out the technology across their networks and drumming up interest in the devices.

Schaefer connected his O2 mobile to his home TV with a device called a Slingbox, which uses a broadband link to allow programmes to be “streamed” directly to a high-speed mobile without having to wait for it to download. Slingboxes are available from Currys for £140.

Fortunately, '3' (in the UK and here in Hong Kong) are offering a flat rate tariff, so there shouldn't be any such nasty surprises (apart from the chance of 'Fei Fei' or any number of other gruesome local TV 'celebrities' appearing unwanted on your mobile phone).   

I have no idea whether it works with Now Broadband TV (it may not, because their control box is something they had specially made using bits from an old DVD player), but Doug Crets was speculating that this would be a cheap way to watch EPL matches "on the go"  (more here and here).  As it happens, there was something in the SCMP today on the general subject of the Sling Box, pointing out that it's not a particularly convenient way to watch TV (no rewind, fast forward or pause), so I don't think that PCCW will be worrying too much about that - but it may have an impact on how much they can charge for EPL coverage on their own 3G network.

The more interesting thing is that '3' are moving away from the "walled garden" approach of limiting what you watch, and the charging structure is quite reasonable.  Anyone with long memories will recall that Hutchison (owners of '3') were very aggressive with their mobile phone tariffs a few years ago, and forced everyone else to reduce prices to compete with them.  Here we are again.


Caveat Emptor

Some good advice from Spike - Research before you shop for high tech items:

Basically, if you go shopping for this kind of stuff in HK and you haven't done your research first, most shops will fuck you up, down and sideways - sometimes on purpose and sometimes because the people working in this shop are either stupid or just can't be bothered to learn about what they're selling.

Had I done more checking in advance, I would have skipped the Wanchai Computer Center and just gone to the Oriental 188 Shopping Center on Wanchai Road. AV Bi-Weekly magazine reports the 60 gig PS3 is selling for $3,780 there.

See, the thing is, there are a lot of locally published magazines - in Chinese - that cover this stuff in extreme detail - reviews, features, list prices and price comparisons at different shops. Local English-language coverage of this kind of stuff is minimal at best. Sure you can get American or Brit magazines for news and reviews or check the various web sites, but what you won't get is local price guidance.

Another problem is that a lot of what is available in the malls is "unofficial" in one way or other (e.g. imported from Japan or the States, or adapted to overcome stupid region codes) so price comparisonswith other countries are not as simple as converting from one currency to another.   

So unless you have the time to check the prices in multiple Hong Kong malls it's hard to know how much you should pay.  I suspect that staff in most of the outlets know that "foreigners" are probably less well-informed than locals.  Spike has a plan:

What I do is I buy the local Chinese magazines. My ability to read Chinese is limited and I'm more familiar with simplified characters rather than traditional and of course I can recognize the Chinese characters for different districts. And surprise! The stuff you absolutely need to see - model numbers, specs, prices, phone numbers - is almost all in English. When I'm really stuck, I can just show a page to someone in my office and ask them to translate for me. E-Zone costs $15 per issue. AV Bi-Weekly is $18. Other mags are similarly cheap.

I think that's probably good advice.  Looking at what's in the magazine and then scouring the Internet for additional product information in English will probably tell you what you need to know.

It's depressing, but I suppose we just have to accept that English language media in Hong Kong is largely a waste of time.  Time to learn Chinese. 


Catching up?

I have a theory that supermarkets in Hong Kong are about 10-15 years behind the UK. 

About 10 years ago, Tesco in the UK introduced their Clubcard scheme, and it has been a huge success.  It's basically a marketing thing - Tesco collects information about what you buy, and in return offers you coupons to spend in their store, either for specific products (based on your buying patterns) or to spend as you choose.  There's an interesting article from the FT here that explains more about it. 

Dunnhumby [the company that runs the Clubcard scheme] takes the information registered on Clubcards each time those 13 million families come into Tesco for their weekly shop, and turns it into five billion pieces of data. Each separate product bought has its own set of attributes. A ready meal can have up to 45 "values" ascribed to it: is it expensive, or cheap? Tesco-branded, or made by Birds Eye? An "ethnic" recipe, or a traditional British dish? Clubcard is the Big Brother of the shopping world.

This information is also stored in a vast search engine that can be used by suppliers trying to launch products. Dunnhumby makes about £30m a year selling Tesco data to more than 200 consumer-goods companies, such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Coca-Cola. Within hours of launching a product or introducing a promotion into a local Tesco store, brand managers can track who is buying their products or responding to their promotions. Are they empty-nesters or young mums, lawyers or factory workers? "If you understand who is buying and how they are buying, you can make better decisions," [says director of consumer strategy and futures Martin Hayward]. "The joy of our sample is that it is so large, and because Tesco is so representative of the country it is the best source of insight a supplier can get."

Now ParknShop have finally got round to copying this idea, though their rewards seem rather rather mean.  If you spent £1,000 at Tesco, you would get coupons worth £10, whereas if you spend HK1,000 in PnS you only get a $4 coupon.  On top of that Tesco gives out extra coupons for specific categories, products, or brands, to encourage you to buy something you wouldn't normally buy - and I'm not sure whether PnS will be doing this.

What's clever about Clubcard is that it helps both Tesco and their suppliers to know a lot more about their customers, and to make decisions accordingly.  It has enabled Tesco to achieve a dominant market share (of over 30%) and become hugely profitable.  Hong Kong is different, because the two main supermarket chains (PnS and Wellcome) already dominate the market, but I suppose extra profit is always welcome. 

From a customer's point of view, there is obviously a concern about privacy and that you are simply making it easier for people to sell more stuff to you, but I have to say that I would choose Tesco over any Hong Kong supermarket every single time.  If PnS could emulate even some of the improvements that Tesco have been able to make over the last ten years, I'd be very happy, and if PnS make higher profits as a result then that's just fine by me.   


Storms, teacups

I don't know all the background to this strange story:

ASIAN AUTHOR Nury Vittachi, co-founder of the Hong Kong Literary Festival, is to be sacked by the organization’s board in a row about racial insensitivity and improper business links.

The novelist, probably Hong Kong’s biggest literary export, alleges that the board fired him after he complained about racism and urged that “questionable business practices” be reformed.

Vittachi claims:

  • That he campaigned for years to set up a literary prize, but once sponsorship was obtained, he was cut from the project because of a Westerners-only rule.
  • That the festival board, ostensibly non-profit, limits membership to directors and authors of Paddyfield.com and Chameleon Press, companies run by board member Peter Gordon.
  • That prime slots in the festival programme were given to Chameleon Press novelists even if they paid for their own publication.

However, the long and the short of it seems to be that Peter Gordon has fallen out with Nury Vittachi.

Those with long memories may recall that one of the more celebrated claims made by that mad bloke with the big yellow blog was that Peter Gordon owned IceRed and was supressing any criticism of Nury (mostly from dear mad old George himself) on the discussion forums.  At that time Peter Gordon's Chameleon Press was indeed publishing Nury's books, but he certainly didn't own IceRed.  Now Nury has moved on to bigger and better things.

I probably shouldn't jump in and make any judgements on this, but I think I'd agree with the conclusion of the anonymous journalist who wrote the article:

People close to the board of the Hong Kong literary festival claim that personalities are a likely element in the present dispute. “Both Peter Gordon and Nury Vittachi have massive egos,” said a regular festival attendee. “But to sack the founder of the festival over a single, vague blog entry seems way out of proportion. There’s got to be more to this than meets the eye.” 

[..]  Both principal players in this drama are deeply ambitious people. Gordon is a spiky character, admired for his acumen by some but not well-liked by other booksellers and publishers in Hong Kong. Vittachi is infamous as a self-absorbed, aloof, workaholic author, but is well-connected and widely liked.

Well, I have to confess that I took an instant dislike to Peter Gordon (it saves time, you see), and Nury is a lovely bloke but he does seem to over-fond of conspiracy theories - such as the one about why he was sacked by the SCMP (published by Peter Gordon), which is only slightly spoilt by the fact that he wasn't actually sacked at all. 

Now he has been sacked, so that should be worth another book.  I'm sure Chameleon Press will publish it...

[UPDATE: In case it's not clear, this appears on Nury's own blog - he appears to have arranged with a journalist to write this account, which he has then published.  I don't think it has appeared elsewhere.]


iPhone

The reaction to the iPhone anouncement has been predictable, I suppose.  It must have been the most widely-reported "technology" story of the last several months, and generally the coverage has been very positive, though some have been more sceptical - The Guardian suggested that it's not as clever as Steve thinks

Imagine you are on the television programme University Challenge. Your starter for 10: identify which mobile has these specifications. Don't press the button until you are sure. Ready? Weight: 135 grams. Camera size: 2 megapixels. Data storage: 4GB to 8GB. Talktime: up to five hours. Connectivity: Wi-Fi and quad-band. Screen size: 3.5 inches; multi-touchscreen. At this point some bright spark presses the button ahead of you to say it is the KE850 variant of LG's Chocolate phone.

That's a new phone, of course, but I have had a number of Treos with touchscreens - and although they come with the stylus that Steve Jobs derided, I can do most things without using it.  Of course the screen is smaller, and it has a tiny keyboard rather than the "virtual keyboard" on the iPhone, but my (5 year old?) Samsung Nexio Wireless Hand PC has one of those (and Wi-Fi), as do countless other devices.  So nothing very new then.

Well, OK, I have to concede that none of these smartphones allow you to grab an icon with your fingers, squeeze it and make it smaller.  I really don't know how I've managed without particular feature... 

The other problem with so-called smartphones is that they aren't all that smart, and end up being frustrating to use.  Can Apple solve that problem?  Most of the hype is based on the hope that they can, and that the iPhone will be as user-friendly as the iPod, but that's a lot to ask considering that this is going to be a much more complex device. 

Time had a fairly extensive article (The Apple Of Your Ear) with photos showing how the iPhone will look (pretty good, I have to admit).  They also had a (rather uncritical) piece about how it was developed, but then I suppose Apple weren't going to give them the first look at the product if they were going to rip it apart: 

20070109t215728z_01_nootr_rtridsp_2_tech_1 The iPhone started out the way a lot of cool things do: as something completely different. A few years ago, Steve Jobs noticed how many development dollars were being spent--particularly in the greater Seattle metropolitan area--on what are called tablet PCs: flat portable computers that work with a touch screen instead of a mouse and keyboard. Jobs, being Jobs, was curious. He had some Apple engineers noodle around with a touch screen. When they showed him what they came up with, he got excited.

So excited he forgot all about tablet computers. He had bigger game to hunt.

[...] Jonathan Ive, Apple's head of design--the Englishman who shaped the iMac and the iPod--squashed the case to less than half an inch thick and widened it to what looks like a bar of expensive chocolate wrapped in aluminum and stainless steel. The iPhone is a typical piece of Ive design: an austere, abstract, Platonic-looking form that somehow also manages to feel warm and organic and ergonomic.

Even The Economist seemed to get a bit carried away, but at least they didn't describe the iPhone as "cool". 

Along with more than 200 other patents, this technology should put the iPhone “five years ahead” of its rivals, reckons Mr Jobs. This claim is hard to judge. The iPhone is not the only phone that can switch automatically between a short-range Wi-Fi connection and a mobile-phone network, depending on which one it sniffs. But it is the only phone with a web browser (Apple's Safari) that displays web pages in their full splendour. It is also the only phone that has “visual voicemail” to save users from the hassle of listening to all their messages before getting to the important ones—a joint innovation with Apple's partner, Cingular, America's largest mobile operator. And it is by far the best handset for photographs, music and videos.

I'm not convinced that this "iPod with a phone" approach makes sense.  It will never be as simple as an iPod, and the problem is that it could end up as just another variant on the smartphone, with all the frustration that can bring.  There's also an inescapable conflict between what is possible if the device runs OS X and the wish to provide a simple, easy-to-use phone.  Will Apple allow third-party developers access to the phone and increase the risk of problems?  Or try to keep it simple but frustrate some of those who have drooled over the phone?  Maybe Palm and Blackberry are safe, at least for now.

A more revolutionary approach for Apple would be to offer a really simple phone add-on for the iPod.  Put them together and you would have an iPhone, but you could separate the two devices and use your phone without all the complications of a smartphone (but with limited functionality).  Maybe not so elegant, but possibly more practical. 

Will it be a success?  Apple are up against some formidable competitors who have a lot of experience in handset design and deep relationships with the service providers (from whom most people buy their phones). However, Steve Jobs would probably be satisfied with a fairly small share of the market, and there are surely enough Apple enthusiasts to achieve that, which means that it should force other handset manufacturers (and particularly Palm and Blackberry) to find ways to make their products easier to use.  Which has to be a good thing. 


The long way round

I was reading this report about Air New Zealand, which says that they are struggling to fill their new Hong Kong - London service, in part because of the impact of Oasis.  Maybe, but Air NZ are new to what has become a very competitive route, and they have a daytime flight to London, which won't suit everyone. 

Anyway, it also mentions that Air NZ now has the only round-the-world service on a single carrier.  Indeed it does, but it's a rather eccentric one, certainly if you start from here (Hong Kong - London - Los Angeles - Auckland - Hong Kong).  I can think of worse places to go, but I can't quite imagine how I would want to visit of all of them in one trip. 

According to the SCMP Sunday travel section, the RTW fare from Hong Kong on Air NZ is about HK$10k for economy and about HK$30k for business. The latter is actually cheaper than the standard business class return fare for Hong Kong - London, which looks odd at first sight, but the explanation is presumably that this is really a leisure fare.  Anyone flying on business from Hong Kong would be highly unlikely to want to go to London, Auckland and Los Angeles in one trip. 

Yes, I know that some companies insist that staff flying from Hong Kong to the States should buy a round-the-world ticket and come back via London because it is cheaper.  However, making you go via Auckland one way and London on the way back would be cruel and unusual punishment, I feel, but I certainly wouldn't be surprised if some bean counter somewhere decided that it would be a good idea.      


What was the question again?

The SCMP seem to have wasted some money on a survey about what 'opinion leaders' think about tax reform. And the answer is, er, well, actually they aren't quite sure.  However, having paid for the survey, the SCMP were determined to publish it (though maybe it wasn't wise to make the actual Powerpoint presentation available for download, which is what they did on Monday, and it's now been replaced with a Powerpoint Slide Show).

Six out of the 700-odd respondents apparently felt that the tax base was too wide, which is an interesting point of view. However, when asked to explain themselves, four of them argued that high land prices equate to a form of indirect taxation. Which is true - up to a point, but the people who are most affected are the middle-classes who already pay salaries tax. I have seen it argued that everyone pays this indirect tax through higher prices in shops, but that's quite a stretch, and certainly not relevant to this argument (after all. you could argue that almost any tax paid by companies is passed on to consumers).

More puzzling are the 26% of respondents who seem to believe that the low rate of profits tax is one reason why the tax base is too narrow. I hope they don't really think that, because low tax rates reduce the revenue but they don't make the tax base narrow.  OK, yes, it's easy to get confused on this, because what the government is really concerned about is tax revenues, and the narrow tax base is seen as a primary cause of this, but they are two separate issues. 

Fortunately they did talk to some people who at least understood the questions they were being asked:

79% of respondents identified that the fact that only 35 per cent of the working population pay salaries tax as a problem.

Correct answer, but hardly a startling insight.  However, I'm not so sure about this one:

65% said that one cause of the narrow tax base is that only 1.2 per cent of Hong Kong's 63,000+ corporations pay 64 per cent of profits tax.

Is that really a cause for concern?  There's a similar phenomenon with salaries tax, because Hong Kong has a small number of very rich people and very profitable companies, but it's nothing to do with the tax system.  If the government can find a way of widening the tax base, it would probably reduce the percentage of tax revenue from the very rich, but only marginally, and that's not really the point.      

The solutions offered by these 'opinion leaders' include a luxury goods tax, green taxes, and a land and sea departure tax (I thought they were going to introduce once of those?), none of which are likely to raise enough to make a different (and isn't a luxury goods tax just a variant on GST?).  There was also support for raising the rate of profits tax, even though that's not going to widen the tax base.  More logically, there was support for capital gains taxes, tax on worldwide income, and tax on dividends, none of which seem likely to find favour with the government. 

So nothing much useful there, then.


Roaming free?

I regard the charges for using a mobile phone overseas (international roaming) as a big rip-off, as I've mentioned before, so I was interested by this report in The Guardian on Tuesday:

The mobile phone company 3 will attempt today to head off a possible clampdown by the European commission on the prices that operators charge to call abroad, with a new tariff that charges customers as if they were still in their home market.

3 will announce that when its customers go abroad and "roam" on one of the company's other networks, they will not be charged to receive calls, and any calls or video calls they make, or texts and picture messages they send, will be charged at home rate. The service will operate in Britain, Ireland, Australia, Austria, Denmark, Hong Kong, Italy and Sweden.

My first thought was that this would make the 3 network (owned by Hutchison Whampoa) very attractive for international travellers, and then I wondered whether this would apply to Hong Kong subscribers.  Apparently it will, from later this year (SCMP - subscription required or there's a BBC report), but the details have not been published.

The charge they make if you receive a call when abroad is the biggest rip-off, and it seems that 3 do intend to abolish this - as long as you use their network in one of the countries where they operate.  Calls back to your home network will be charged as if you were at home, but it's not clear how much they will charge for calls made within the country you are visiting (i.e. a Hong Kong subscriber calling a UK number when they are in the UK), but I don't think that's part of the deal.

The problem, of course, is that 3 only operates in a rather small number of countries, so it won't be useful for everyone.  If Vodafone were to offer something similar that would be far more significant, but they probably aren't as desparate as 3.  However, I expect that competitive pressure and the availability of alternatives (so-called 'Call Forward Roaming') will eventually force all operators to offer something more reasonable.


With all due respect, you're a danger to other road users

For once, I have to agree with Fumier:

I'm getting really, really tired of drivers who put on their hazard lights every time they slow down or stop. Ooh! Traffic lights. Better put on the hazards. Ooh! A roundabout. Better put on the hazards. Ooh! I'm going to turn right. Better put on the hazards. Ooh! I'm such a wally. Better put on the hazards.

While I agree that, if these people are allowed to drive, or even to walk, at all, they  should bear a permanent hazard light, preferably implanted 3 feet up their backsides, putting on the hazards whenever they stop is pointless, dangerous and, most important of all, it bugs me.

It is pointless because cars come ready-equipped with brake lights, which even Hong Kong drivers have not yet found a way of avoiding using. It is dangerous because you have to take your hand off the wheel, or in the case of Hong Kong drivers your mobile phone, in order to reach down and press the hazard button. It bugs me because I am an irritable bar steward.

To me, it's like saying "with all due respect" and following up with an insult, hoping that you have sugared the pill sufficiently that the other person won't hit you.  Drivers do something stupid or dangerous and think that switching on their hazard warning lights somehow makes it OK.  No, it doesn't.

Probably the most asinine of all is the driver who pulls off the road into a roadside parking space, using his hazards instead of the left-hand indicator, and then leaves the hazards on. To the drivers coming along the road it looks as though the car is about to pull out because, guess what, the left-hand side is hidden by the car parked behind Wally Sin-saang, and so only the right signal can be seen. Of course, when the car does pull out, there will be no signal at all because the hazard lights are turned off first without using indicators.

Indeed - the hazard warning lights are actually a hazard.  It's bizarre.


PVR? Lovely!

Doug Crets passes on the rumour that PCCW are going to enhance the Now Broadband TV service...

...with the installation of personal video recorders, or the software for personal video recording, as an added value offer to its now TV subscribers.

I think that "added value" means that we'll have to pay for it, but that's fine as far as I am concerned.  I think Sky charge for their Sky+ service, and PCCW are currently charging HK$30 per month for their very limited 'Now Select' service, so I'd happily pay a bit more than that to be able to easily record anything from any channel. 

It may also allow PCCW to offer a vide-on-demand service (they send the program to your set top box, for you to watch whenever you want), though there's always the bandwidth issue.

Meanwhile, the SCMP has a rather muddled report about Now increasing the price of their HK$388 package to HK$450:

PCCW's NOW Broadband will increase fees for its pay-TV services by at least 16 per cent next month, prompting lawmaker Fred Li Wah-ming to call on soccer fans to boycott the service and look elsewhere for their sporting fix.

Mr Li, of the Democratic Party, said the NOW price rise was outrageous and should have been met by an increase in advertising.

"It's really bad news for soccer fans," he said. "I heard CCTV broadcasts on the internet. I would urge consumers to take every possible legal step to find another way to watch the games and boycott NOW TV."

That sound you can hear is a politician opening his mouth before thinking.  I suppose he believes that subcribers will have to pay HK$450 per month to get the EPL coverage, but actually that's what they charge for a very large selection of channels (not all, but most).  It should still be possible to subscribe to the sports channels but nothing else - an option that Cable TV didn't offer.